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RIP Henry Hook and Doug Hoylman

I'm at a loss, folks. An utterly miserable year for our puzzling family somehow manages to get worse.

Henry Hook was a brilliant puzzle constructor with a unique personality. He was known for being gruff and perhaps even rude, but also for a terrific sense of humor, and he was well-liked in our community. His sadly out-of-print "Hooked On" series of puzzle books are still seen as some of the best around. I still remember riding the elevator with him at my very first American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in 2001; he wore a shirt that said "Yes, That's My Final F***ing Answer." We didn't speak; I was terrified (not to mention sixteen years old). I saw him again lingering outside the ballroom after the end of the ACPT a few years ago, and again I failed to stop and have a chat. Through all those years, I don't think I ever formally met the man, and that is to my profound regret.

Doug Hoylman was one of the best solvers in ACPT history, racking up six titles, which is tied for the second-most ever. He was very quiet, yet merciless during the competition, earning him the nickname Iceman. I would greet Doug at every tournament, but having long conversations wasn't his style. He let his solving do the talking and it spoke very loudly indeed. He did indulge in some whimsy one year, taking part in a prank on me in which many contending solvers wore the same Trogdor The Burninator T-shirt that I used to wear every tournament Sunday. Seeing a player of his credentials participate made it all the more enjoyable for everyone involved.

We'll miss you, gentlemen.

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RIP Leslie Billig

With the puzzle world still reeling over the death of Thomas Gazzola, many of us heard the news on Thursday that we lost another friend.

Leslie Billig was a regular attendee of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament and a longtime puzzle editor for Penny Press and GAMES, among other outlets. While I personally did not socialize with her often, she had a great influence on many excellent puzzlemakers working today, and I see many of them fondly recalling interacting with her in both a professional and social setting. ACPT attendees can still recall Leslie's "Crossword Idol"-winning performance a decade ago of "My Will," a Jerome Kern parody about Will Shortz. She was a beloved mainstay of our community and she's gone far too soon.

I really would like to stop writing this sort of entry now.

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RIP Thomas Gazzola

This is probably the shittiest way to return to post here, but I had to make some attempt, however inadequate, to memorialize a dear friend that we lost this week.

I knew Tom Gazzola through the National Puzzlers' League, in which he went by the alias of Maso. I always enjoyed seeing him at our annual convention, which he hosted in 2012. He hosted a few editions of his game invention, It Takes Two (formerly Doubles Jeopardy). It quickly became a hit and one of the must-play homemade games of the weekend. His wit and innovation shined through, whether it was the creative ways to get two people to team up to answer trivia questions or the other amusing touches he brought to his presentation, such as making answer values increments of one penny rather than $100. In 2011 in Providence, I was fortunate enough to land on his team for the extravaganza, the suite of interconnected puzzles that is the climax of the convention. We and our other two teammates worked together seamlessly and took home the victory. Participants need both puzzle skills and interpersonal skills to achieve that, and Tom was a great ally on both fronts. Tom was also a teammate at the MIT Mystery Hunt, which we also won this year. We were in the midst of planning the 2016 event, and it will be much poorer without his creativity and enthusiasm.

But it wasn't all just puzzling and gaming with Tom; he was a joy to socialize with as well. He had a calm, quiet demeanor, even while cracking a joke, which he often did. Over the last several days, I've read so many friends' fond memories of interacting with him, whether it was as a relative, puzzler colleague, friend, confidant, and/or student. Quite simply, he made people feel good. I saw him only at the occasional puzzle event and I feel a void due to his passing; I can't imagine the magnitude of the loss for those lucky enough to interact with him daily.

Rest in peace, friend. We won't forget you.

Lastly: For fuck's sake, never, ever, ever drink and drive. Your selfishness might take someone special out of this world.

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To the rescue

Last week, I returned from the annual National Puzzlers' League convention, which this year was held in Portland, Maine. As usual, I had a fantastic time solving and socializing with my puzzling family, and I still have a pile of cryptics I never got to!

The capstone to the convention is the Saturday night extravaganza, in which attendees work in teams of four to solve a big set of interconnected puzzles, leading to a satisfying final meta answer. This year's event took a different approach; while there was a small group of people heading up the design, every puzzle was constructed by a different NPL member. These contributors could still play in the extravaganza; they just had to recuse themselves from helping with their own puzzle. I was one of the people approached to make a puzzle, and I did so, but due to an abundance of grid puzzles, it was left on the cutting-room floor. But hey, that's what the Internet is for; I've posted it here for your enjoyment. As with all hunt-style puzzles, you seek a single word or short phrase as your final answer, and I warn you that this puzzle is completely untested and unedited. You can contact me if you see something I really should change.

Looking ahead, here's another reminder of the upcoming Lollapuzzoola crossword tournament in New York City. I've test-solved the first drafts of the puzzles and I can say that some fun challenges await you. I once again will fail to attend because I am super-lame. You should go so you can be not super-lame.


Battles of wits

Hello again, solvers! Since my last post, I've had my second-worst performance ever on the US Puzzle Championship, failed yet another Real Escape Game, won at The Grimm Escape, and pulled out a nail-biting triumph at the Shinteki Decathlon. They were all fun except for maybe the USPC, and even that had high quality; it's just that it was dwarfed by my incompetence.

Looking to the future, it's nearly the season for local crossword tournaments! First up is Lollapuzzoola 7 on Saturday, August 9th, which, you might note, is a Saturday in August. This fun and freewheeling tournament is sure to bring another solid batch of creative, original puzzles. September, specifically the 13th, brings the Bay Area Crossword Tournament, also marking its seventh year. Solve the next week's New York Times puzzles in advance in pursuit of the tournament prize and in support of Families of SMA. Then, in October, competitive puzzling heads south for the next edition of Crosswords LA. Check back soon for more details on that, but for now, I can report that I've amicably stepped down from the Puzzle Wrangler position, which will be filled expertly by Amy Reynaldo. I still plan to be on hand to officiate.

Go get 'em, everyone.


This one’s a keeper

Two weeks ago, I had great fun at DASH 6; it was a lovely San Francisco day and the puzzles were excellent. To top it off, the three-man League of Extraordinary Puzzlemen finished in first place worldwide! This was a very gratifying accomplishment after our near miss last year. Keep an eye on that site to check out the puzzles, which I assume will go up after the upcoming rerun in Minneapolis.

The event also served as another chance for a hunt management app called ClueKeeper to show its stuff. I want to post about it here because it's really taken some big strides forward in recent weeks and I think it's revolutionary for the experience of playing and designing hunts.

ClueKeeper makes it easy to manage the mechanisms that go into running a hunt, including team registration, scoring, leaderboards, hint dispensation, answer confirmation, and even verification through GPS that a team is in the correct location! It also supports different structures for the puzzles themselves; designers can use start codes (which can start the puzzle's timer and hint countdown), include a batch of mini-puzzles that all go together (possibly including a metapuzzle), and choose to accept partial answers.

As a solver, I really like having all my previous ClueKeeper-based hunts stored in my account. It's nice to look back on the events I've done and how my teams did in them. And, thanks to a bunch of new self-guided, play-anytime hunts that recently became available, that history will only get deeper! I've already enjoyed the Sunset Pub Crawl, and I took advantage of an early sale to pick up the Las Vegas and Philadelphia hunts in anticipation of visits to those places later this year. I'm looking forward to seeing that page get longer as more designers jump in!

ClueKeeper's next event is the Shinteki Decathlon, one of my favorite puzzling days of the year. I'll be playing on the 24th, the first weekend. Can't wait!

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Two much

I had a fun weekend at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. I saw a lot of puzzle cronies, made some new ones, and caught up with a few old friends outside the tournament. You probably care more about the fact that I finished second for the third time.

I don't have a lot of interesting commentary about Puzzles 1 through 7. They were enjoyable, well-crafted crosswords; I'd be a very happy man if every puzzle I solved were that good. My ascent to second place, though, was relatively drama-free, as I got there early and slowly made myself comfortable just behind Dan Feyer and, more importantly, ahead of the nearest rivals. The one bump in the road was when I finished Puzzle 2 with the dreaded "59" showing on the right half of the clock, meaning I'd missed out on 25 points by a margin of one second. I thought that was an ill omen, but by the end of Puzzle 6, my lead over third place had ballooned to four minutes' worth of points, and my advantage over fourth place, the first non-finalist spot, was a whopping six minutes. My approach on Sunday morning's Puzzle 7 was thus very conservative; I took just a little bit of the edge off my solving speed and took ninety seconds to check my answers (I found no mistakes in that span).

The championship showdown looked a little different this year, as Howard Barkin, a 2010 finalist, stepped into third place to face Dan and me on stage. The puzzle, a beauty by Mike Shenk, was, of course, tough as nails. I slammed in a few answers right away, but then I immediately got stuck. I don't know how long I stood there not writing anything; it couldn't have been more than two minutes or so, but it felt like an eternity. The thought was inescapable: I just lost the tournament. I knew what it took to beat Dan, and standing there stumped for more than a few moments was not part of that formula. Sure enough, Dan stepped away from his board and, through my headphones, I detected none of the rumblings I've felt when an opponent has submitted an imperfect solution. Once more, I was playing for the silver medal.

Fortunately, once I looked past my roadblock to toeholds in other parts of the puzzle, I picked up a pretty good head of steam. There was the occasional misstep here and there, but for the most part I did pretty well for the rest of my solve. Good thing, too, because I claimed second prize less than thirty seconds before Howard finished his grid. For me, though, what mattered was that I missed another shot at the title, and Dan was crowned champion for the fifth straight time, matching the streak I'd put together immediately before his.

Let's not pretend these streaks are equal, though. For four of my five titles, I needed a mistake from an on-stage opponent (or, in 2009, both of them) to claim the championship. Only once, in 2006, did I actually complete the final puzzle first. Dan, on the other hand, has barnstormed his way through all five finals, finishing first and perfectly every time. The only year he needed some major luck was 2012, when he had an error in a Saturday puzzle and got back into the top three in a tournament rife with mistakes among the top solvers. And even then, his on-stage performance was dominant. I still believe I deserved my titles, certainly, but my streak was a hell of a lot flukier than Dan's.

So now what? You can get a glimpse into my post-tournament state of mind in this Time article (one of the best pieces I've ever seen covering the event). When I claimed my prize from Will Shortz, he commented that I was just about the only guy who's disappointed by second place. I see his point; by an objective standard, I did great. But after climbing the mountain several times, it's just not good enough for me. I don't fly across the country to be runner-up. It seems clear to me, though, that I'm a step behind, and, barring yet another big-time stroke of luck, I need to improve my skills on that final puzzle in order to claim another win.

My target does need to be Puzzle 8. Obviously, making the top three is never a guarantee, but my skills on the first seven puzzles are up to snuff, particularly if I practice a little more. I lost two minutes to Dan on Puzzles 1 through 7 this year: one on my very near miss in Puzzle 2, and the other on my conservative approach to the Sunday morning crossword. Take those away and I'm in a flat-footed tie. There's no reason for me to doubt myself anymore to that point in the tournament. But it's that tough puzzle that always seems to get me. There's always been a wrong answer, or a slightly overly long pause, or a really really overly long pause. If I seem like I'm losing confidence in the ability I take to the championship puzzle, that's not directly because of Dan, but because I see a biggish gap between my solving and what's required to win the championship now. The path back to triumph is to speed-solve the toughest crosswords I can find, and to do it on paper and not the computer. And, while I'm not about to set up a big crossword easel in my studio apartment, perhaps I could look at my approach to solving in that setting. If I improve to the point where I can eliminate my miscues and pauses, I'll have a good shot to win regardless of what anyone else does.

Now that I feel a little more focused, I think there will be more training in the year ahead. I remain a busy person and there are lots of things I do that I enjoy more than speed-solving. Practice is not going to dominate my schedule by any means. But if I get myself the right materials, there's no reason I can't do it at least a little bit every day or two. I have it in my head that I need to get better in order to win again, and if I don't make the effort, I have nobody to blame but myself.


Square dealing

If it's Daylight Savings Time weekend, it's probably time for the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. This year is the 37th edition of the annual competition, and, almost incredibly to me, I'll be attending for the 13th time.

Much of the sentiment I expressed in last year's preview still holds true. The disappointment I felt about my failure in the 2013 final hasn't led to more practice or a greater hunger. While I have mixed up my tough-puzzle solving with this book and the occasional attempt to solve a triple-stack crossword with Down clues only, I've done nothing in the way of speed-solving on paper. I'll probably do a bit of it on the plane just to get back into the groove, if indeed that groove is still there.

With my perfect-solve streak now standing a nice round zero, I consider this sort of a proving year for me. Do I have the skills to threaten to get on stage, or can I not just flip that switch anymore? Plus, I want to gauge my mental outlook on the event; it certainly seems like I don't relish the hunt like I once did. I don't enjoy my spiking nerves or the "rivalries" in a group I consider first and foremost to be a friendly one. I don't like being a focus of attention for attendees or media coverage. Yes, this tournament is somewhat of a tradition for me, and I do look forward to seeing friends, and I do find it hard to tear myself away as long as the possibility of the title is there. Plenty of pros and cons, really.

As for the general outlook on how the tournament will proceed, stop me if you've heard this one: Dan Feyer is the favorite, trying to match the record of five straight titles immediately after I did it. What's more, Dan has just moved to San Francisco to challenge my recent West Region supremacy, which means there's a solid chance that, for the first time ever, I will leave the tournament without a first-place trophy of any kind. That prospect is a bummer, sure, but it doesn't really change anything for me; my approach has been "championship or bust" for a good decade now. Snagging a spot in the final is likelier to get harder than easier, with a goodly number of hungry players eager for their chance after three straight years of Dan, Anne Erdmann, and me up there. So expect Puzzle 7 to be a tense one among the tightly bunched top competitors. As I implied in the opening sentence, between the time zone change and the lost DST hour, that 9 AM puzzle will feel like 5 AM to us Pacific folk. I can't say it's had much of an effect in the past, but in a tight situation, any mental slip could be costly. If advance scouting is your thing, here's a list of this year's constructors. Let the speculation as to the ordering begin!

Once more unto the breach, friends. See you in Brooklyn.


Down the rabbit hole

Happy 2014, everyone! Yes, it's almost the end of January, but, as I've alluded to, I'm not posting much these days. It's time, though for my recap of the MIT Mystery Hunt, which rebounded from a difficult 2013 with a very successful event put on by Team [entire text of Atlas Shrugged]. I enjoyed myself thoroughly, and Team Luck finished in what many consider "best place," i.e. second, the highest team that doesn't have to design next year's Hunt. Congratulations to Random, assuming they actually wanted to do it! [More after the jump.]

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American Values: Working on holidays

Hey, it's Christmas! Need a fun diversion to enjoy with your family and friends, or possibly to get away from your family and friends? Well, the last American Values Club crossword drops today and it happens to be mine. Buy it for a buck, or, better yet, buy a subscription. Better still, buy a subscription for one or more loved ones!

And while we're on the subject of crossword-related gifts, Winner's Circle Crosswords remains very much available! Yes, it may be a bit late for Christmas, but hey, no reason you can't surprise someone with, say, a Groundhog Day present or something.